Northgate 3 – 1 Westwood
SMCCFL Division 3
It’s Saturday, 09.03am. Receiving a call from the stadium staff at the County Offices at this time is never good news. Jonny Clark, fresh out of his morning soak in the bath in a last-ditch effort to sooth his strained calf muscle, looks out of his bedroom window. Nothing. No rain, no snow, nothing to suggest any reason as to why this game might be called off at such late notice. What could the call be? It’s good news. Northgate will be playing on the main pitch, pride of place at the front of the centre, complete with stand which would play host to a season-high attendance of six! (Now that your attention has been grabbed by the fast-paced present-tense writing trick, I shall return to the familiar past-tense because it’s easier.)
Buoyed by the excitement of playing on what is certainly the best surface in the league, Clark’s leg seemed somewhat lighter and less troublesome as the sun came out to greet the players on warm up. Several new faces were in the line-up after the wet win in Bolton, with Davenport taking place between the sticks behind James Holden coming in to join the defence alongside regulars Harvey, Clark and Broomhall. Pete Davies was rewarded with his first start for the club after a fine debut performance of the bench the previous week, lining up behind fan favourites Slade and Campbell in the middle. Scott McNeil also returned for another start, this time on the right flank, with Matt Ward on his favoured left side whilst Alex Owen looked to continue his electrifying goalscoring form following two hat-tricks in as many games. Theo Thomas and latest signing Ryan Stringer made up the bench, as injured duo Matt Hilsden (sporting his bright orange cast) and Josh Coleclough also showed their faces to ensure they’re not forgotten during this positive start to the season.
With Westwood turning up only minutes before the scheduled kick-off time, they clambered off the team bus astounded at the venue laid out before them and attempted a quick warm up. Preying on their lack of preparation, the Gaters looked to attack early on but lacked real bite as they threatened the goal. Good openings were being carved by Ward and Campbell with some neat interplay finding Owen, but the keeper was equal to a couple of tame efforts whilst also happy to watch others sail way wide.
The game evened out, and Westwood began to show their quality on the ball. Relegated from Division 2 last season, they are keen to head straight back up and were keen to display their ability. Comfortable on the ball and with plenty of pace, they shifted it around well but the Northgate defence held firm and looked extremely well organised. Apart from comfortably claiming crosses, Davenport’s main test came from his own team as Clark headed just over his own bar when defending a corner. Driven by a desire to pass the ball and not play needlessly long, mistakes can always occur, however. “Mighty” Martin Harvey, so solid for the rest of the half in the air, twice fluffed at an attempted clearance and the ball fell to the feet of an onrushing striker. Pouncing on the loose ball in space he raced clear and finished well into the corner to give the visitors the lead out of nowhere.
Time wore on and halftime rolled around as the same patterns continued to play out; dominance on the ball but nothing to show for it. The message was simple and calm from Clark at the break: stick to the plan. Despite being behind the mood was positive and patience was the name of the game for the second half. So long as discipline and patience remained, this game was there for the taking.
Minutes after instructing the team to ensure they did nothing silly to jeopardise their position, Clark was eating his words. Trying to right his wrong at a clearance to win a goal-kick in pre-season, he nearly gifted the winger a run into the box after another daft attempt at being clever. This served as a timely reminder to everyone for the need for concentration. As the game continued in a similar fashion, more openings were created as Westwood’s defensive legs showed their first signs of tiring. Ward delivered a couple of wonderful balls into the box, with Campbell heading just wide. Owen, Stringer (on at halftime for McNeil), Campbell and Ward all had chances to level but just couldn’t find the definitive touch, leaving the door open for frustration to grow. Positivity and work rate remained high on the agenda though, and just as Clark was planning a switch around to a more offensive 3-5-2 formation, a leap out of nowhere from man-mountain Josh Slade saw him win a vital flick on from a crossfield ball. Owen, as always, was in the right place at the right time and finally took his chance with a decisive scuff of a shot that trickled over the line. Northgate were level.
‘Goals change games’ has always been an incredibly strange and obvious phrase associated with the beautiful game, but it was so true of this one. The atmosphere changed from frustration to belief in an instant, and for the visitors, it turned quickly to panic. Ward and Broomhall left the field after hard working displays on a wider pitch than normal, being replaced by Thomas on the left wing and McNeil slotting in at left back. Thomas, in his first appearance of the season, came on like a new man. Famed for his fast-paced, mazy runs with the ball, he worked hard towards the end of the 2017/18 season on improving his end product – winning him the Most Improved Player award – and it showed. With a new-found consistency in making the right decision on when to pass, his burst of energy down the flank took the Westwood defence by storm and he created chance after chance linking up with Campbell, Slade, and Owen in the middle. And it’s no mistake that it was his bursting run that caused confusion in the back line when a clearance was fluffed and after a scuffle, the ball fell kindly to the onrushing Stringer who showed real composure to slot it underneath the keeper to put Northgate ahead on his debut. The crowd went wild and Westwood began to lose their heads. A couple of late tackles and aggressive reactions were swiftly dealt with by the referee who never lost control of the game.
A couple of half-chances and long-range efforts came back from the visitors as they desperately pushed for a comeback, but the back four and Davenport were resolute in their defence, with Davies and Slade providing exceptional cover in front of them to break up the play and get back on the front foot. It was fitting that the man who had injected a new sense of pace and rhythm to the game had the final word. Theo Thomas with another darting run around defenders and into the box, his first shot blocked but his rebound followed up to give him a well-deserved goal. The second-half comeback was complete. Three more goals and three more points for Northgate in a thrilling morning of football. Not only that, but it equals the club record of three consecutive wins set in Dec-Jan 2017/18, the first of which also saw the 2nd league win of last season – underlining the achievement of six points by mid-September.
Catching up with Clark at the end of the game, he had this to say:
Obviously I’m delighted with the result, but more than that it’s the performance. It was a really mature performance to stick to our game plan, stay patient and move the ball and the defence around like we did. It was terrific. It’s 3 from 3 and I couldn’t have asked for more. The new boys are settling in well and we have belief in the squad as a whole. Macc Parish will be a tough test next week and we all know what happened there last year so we want to correct that too.
[On the state of his calf]
It got through. It’s not in a good way right now and I’ll need to recover properly but I’m sure I’ll be fighting fit for next week.
[On the Elkington managerial claims]
I want to put that to bed. Rob and I have an excellent relationship and mutual respect professionally. He’s a superb coach and I know I can rely on him, but the squad needs unity and that’s what we have and continue to strive for. Whoever is in charge, whoever is on the pitch, whoever is writing the match reports…this is a club that focusses on the positives and looks forward.
1. Ben Davenport (GK)
2. Martin Harvey (RB)
3. Mark Broomhall (LB)
4. James Holden (CB)
5. Jonny Clark (CB)
6. Pete Davies (CDM)
7. Scott McNeil (RM / LB)
8. Josh Slade (CM)
9. Alex Owen (ST)
10. Lawrie Campbell (CM)
11. Matt Ward (LM)
12. Ryan Stringer (RM)
13. Theo Thomas (LM)
Man of the Match – JOSH SLADE